Monday, January 18, 2016

The 400th blog post: Sentimental stuff


This is the 400th post on my blog. Seriously, I had never thought I would make it till here. Long, long back there used to be a brown diary where I used to write terrible poems. Thankfully, it no longer exists (probably). Maybe someone had wrapped fruits or jhalmuri in some of the pages.

Maybe someone has preserved it, at least a single page.

I do not miss my diary anymore. Diaries cannot be preserved. You can get all sentimental about diaries and letters and dry flowers inside books, but, well, you cannot stack them up neatly in Google Drive. You cannot use F3 or Ctrl + F when you want to, badly.

But I digress, as usual. This is my 400th post. I wanted to make it stand out. I thought of all sorts of 400s — of Brian Lara, of the fact that it is the square of 20, of HTTP status code 400.

I also realised that it reads CD in Roman, which meant I could write on compact disks (no, not on compact disks, for they are too small; I could write something on the topic).

Then I decided to write on my grandparents. There is no logic behind that, barring the fact that the number has four hundreds and there were four grandparents. Neither of my grandparents lived till a hundred, so writing about them in a 400-themed post makes no sense.

But then, blog-posts need not make sense; not always.

More importantly, someone has to chronicle about these four remarkable people.

***

My grandparents were seriously interesting and diverse — all of them — way more than my parents or brother or I have been or are (am) or will be.

Let me start with Guru Prasanna Roy Chowdhury, my maternal grandfather, a man whose roots lay in Faridpur, Bangladesh, but he loved Kolkata so much that he did not take up a promotion (he worked at DVC) because it would have meant leaving the city.

I had no clue why he cared so much for me, for I was not the quintessential lively kid. I read, and I read a lot. When I was at his place, and both of us were in the same room, hours passed by as I read on and he played solitaire, the Phillips transistor radio on, tuned in to irrelevant programmes.

In other words, he rarely communicated with me when I was busy. He respected my space.

And yet, when he took me out for a walk, he was full of conversations, of Kolkata of the 1940s and 1950s, of my mother’s childhood, of how Durga Puja has evolved, of Congress and CPM, of Gavaskar and Kapil Dev.

He was always the same. He would wear a white punjabi and dhuti; there would be a walking-stick in his right hand; my right wrist would be clutched very tight; and there would be long, very long, tireless walks that always seemed to get over too soon, for he never ran out of insights and information and trivia.

Those evening walks taught me more of Kolkata and her history than books.

In the monsoon months he took me to Potopara, a locality where they make idols of Durga. I could not understand why he, an atheist to the core, used to do this. I kept asking him, but he never told me till I was about ten.

“You have seen what The Goddess actually is. I will not influence you, but make up your mind on God’s existence.”

I wish I could be a teacher half as good.

He never believed in exuberance. He did not speak a lot. But when he did, the words were profound, and made an impact.

My brother and I got admitted to Kyokushinkaikan karate. In late 1980s or early 1990s you always had to learn something. Karate had perhaps to do with the fact that my father loved watching movies on martial arts (just a guess).

It was exciting, especially those first few days. We visited his place after class, one day. He was reading a newspaper.

“We are learning karate.”

He nodded sadly, very sadly. He looked at me from behind his thick glasses and said, “Pipe-guns — they are everywhere these days. So many innocent people get killed every day. Can you help them?”

I got decent marks in my 10th. Everyone assumed I would take up science, barring this man. He called me, separately, and asked me to do what I wanted to. He would stand by me if it came to that.

“It does not matter what you study, or what you do. If you are good at it, and if your heart lies in it, the subject does not matter. You will never get these days back.”

Two years later he asked me the same question. I chose to study statistics, not engineering, after my 12th.

Two years later he was no more.

There are too many memories to share as my glasses are getting thick, almost thick as his. And yet, what stands out in memory is a retort aimed at my mother:

“Baba, tuck in your mosquito net properly. The malignant malaria-bearing mosquitoes operate only between two and three at night.”
“Yeah, right; they have watches.”

[হ, অগো হাতে ঘোরি আসে।]

We kept his last wishes: we donated his body to Calcutta Medical College; and there was no funeral.

***

Latika, his wife, was a curious, most singular character, one of the liveliest and most energetic I have seen. They stayed on the fourth floor, and well in her late eighties she would climb the staircase with ease, going to market, to ‘gas booking’ if there was an issue with LPG cylinders and the phone was not working, and more.

My father helped her with banking and other similar activities, but she was generally fiercely independent. At an age when most mothers are happy to stay at their daughters’ (she had two), she refused to do the same. Seldom did she stay happily at our place, or my aunt’s.

She had her idiosyncrasies. I remember an occasion when I was supposed to pick her up at 10. She called me at, about, 9.20, enquiring why I had still not arrived. When I pointed out that there was still forty-odd minutes left, she mentioned that she was ready by 8.30, walked downstairs, waited till 9, then 9.15, got irritated, and walked up all four storeys to call.

[I have double-checked the times while writing.]

She was powerfully (but harmlessly) patriotic, and used to salute a photograph of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on January 23 till well into her final years.

That was probably normal.

She had expected me (in my early twenties), my brother, and my cousin (both in their late teens) to stand in a queue and welcome the arrival third millennium.

That was probably not normal.

But it did not matter, for she did not give a, well, you-know-what to what the world thought of her.

She lived till I was thirty-five, which meant I saw a lot of her. By then I knew more about life than I ever thought I would, at thirty. And I marvelled at the resilience of the woman who went on about everything with a near-toothless smile.

This was the woman who introduced me to Ramayan, and generally, to mythology.

This was the woman who waited at the doorsteps, and applauded me all the way to the bedroom when I visited them the day after I passed my 10th.

Do you realise how embarrassing this was?

This was a woman who had seen, lived, and conquered poverty.

This was a woman who had seen her youngest daughter pass away; and overcame it.

This was a woman who used to panic when she saved fifty rupees at the end of the month (from her pension), wondering how she would spend all that money. This was fifty rupees in the 2000s, mind you.

This was a woman who could not be conquered by age or grief.

And today, as I approach forty, I wish she was here, to applaud me all the way at achievements as insignificant as passing an examination.

***

Sova Mukherjee was the ubiquitous grandmother (Achala Sachdev, not Zohra Sehgal). She was kind, she walked at the pace of about fifty metres an hour (okay, I exaggerated that), was blessed with a nice smile, and was extremely grandmotherly.

She mothered three children. Since both my parents were working, she almost ‘mothered’ my brother and me as well.

She ensured we were well-fed (or, in my case, a bit too well-fed).

She used to talk to tea (yes, you have read that right). She remains the only person I have seen who consumed two cups of tea simultaneously, one in each hand, sipping alternately, taking out time for words of praise: “Oh, tea — the person who discovered you must have been a genius! Can you tell me his name?”

She never understood a word of Hindi, but used to get extremely excited whenever the climax of a Bollywood movie approached on Doordarshan and the hero had managed to rescue the heroine and corner the villain: “Maar! Maar!”

And then, “The movie got over? Just like that?”

“What else were you expecting? The villain went to prison, the hero and heroine got together...”

“But there will be a wedding! They will ‘do shongshar’! What about that?”

She loved her shongshar. You can probably visualise her, in her black, broad-rimmed glasses, keys tied to her white, cotton aatpoure sari — keys that always announced her arrival.

She had little formal education and could barely write her name, and yet could tell whether there was an Enid Blyton inside my history book:your expressions gave it away.

My mother once told me a story about her. A didi (my neighbour and second cousin) was once walking outside the terrace of our neighbour’s, grabbing the perilously fragile-looking cornice. A hysteric yell would have been catastrophic. She kept her calm, whispered to my didi’s mother (my something, do not ask, it is very confusing), telling her everything and asking her not to panic.

And my grandmother masterminded the rescue in the matter of minutes, by having the right people in right places.

She was religious, and was extremely prejudiced when it came to religion. And yet, there was no real issue when my parents had an inter-caste love marriage.

More importantly, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, she went out of her way to accommodate a Sikh family in our house.

That was the second lesson in religion from a grandparent.

But, most importantly, she was the mother when my mother was away on her day job.

Her health deteriorated quickly after my grandfather passed away. She had slipped once, in her last days. I had picked her up and put her to bed. She seemed light, very light. I wondered how she had carried the entire household on her shoulders all those decades.

She was about to breathe her last when I was in Washington-Dulles on a seven-hour layover, for the British Airways flight had been delayed.

She breathed her last by the time I had landed in Heathrow. I never got to know till I landed in Kolkata.

All that waited for me was a photograph and incense sticks. My grandmother was somewhere else, they said, embalmed, waiting for me.

When I finally got to see her, she was not smiling anymore. Embalming had not helped.

***

This leaves me with Satya Charan Mukherjee, probably the coolest individual I have known in real life.

My dadu worked as a car salesman. He had a way with his words, which meant that he topped the charts every month in his organisation. This was not unexpected, for if his gift of the gab was even a fragment of what it was in his late eighties, he must have been phenomenal.

But then, he would not leave Kolkata, which was hardly unusual in our family.

What was more, he would not compromise with his siesta. This meant that he left for office in the morning, came back at one, had his lunch followed by his afternoon sleep, and never returned for the day.

And yet, he topped the charts, month after month.

His boss obviously told him one day that he could not leave office that early every day.

My grandfather showed him the sales charts.

His boss mentioned that the company had decorum to maintain.

So my grandfather resigned, went to a rival organisation, and announced that he was available. He was hired instantly.

Note: This is a verified story.

My grandfather used to participate in car-rallies and win awards, and made his way to newspapers.

For a long time the hat, the whistle, and the baton remained a mystery, but I got to know that he was a part of the police special force.

I cannot sell a car, drive, or fight crime to save my life, which are among the many reasons why I thought he was cool.

He had once caught a fraud astrologer red-handed, and, well, did not let him get away with it.

He watched cricket with my mother. The two of them gave me cricket.

He made sure I had a library membership at a very young age.

He cooked mutton the way few chefs can.

He kept odd hours, going to bed at eight at night and waking up at half-past three. He was back from his morning-walk by five. When the clock ticked over to 7.45 at night, he made sure the bedroom was cleared.

He made sure my aunt became a Company Secretary when married teenage girls seldom pursued studies, let alone a professional course. This, despite taking immense pride in announcing that he was a “matriculate by chance”.

He was the first guardian to reach my school to collect his ward the day Mrs Gandhi was assassinated.

He made sure I accompanied him to market. By six I could tell fresh, soft ladies’-fingers from their stubborn components, or how to identify a desi potol.

I got my first job a year before he passed away. I had a choice between a handsome package in Hyderabad and a moderate one in Kolkata. I told him.

“Who leaves Kolkata for money?”

I did, eventually. Not for money, but for a job, for they do not have many back there anymore.

***

They were cool and jovial, perseverant and bizarre, smiling and radical, compassionate and protective. They knew the thin line between encouraging and spoiling, all four of them.

When I was young I was tired of everyone telling me how fortunate I was to have all four of them, not only alive, but healthy. It took me years to understand why.

As my thirties come to a close, memories swarm my mind. I do not have photographs of them with me, or at least, hard copies.


But meeting them is never far away. I am blessed with an above-average memory, you see.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Food and blasphemy: two real-life stories


PRIDE

Mumbai.

The City That Never Sleeps.

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

The airport where the bookshop does not stock Agatha Christie. Worse, they tell you “nahin, is author ka koi book nahin hai.

Is author.

It was the last day, the last evening of 2015. I was returning home, to Kolkata, the city that confuses everyone by closing her shops for siestas.

I was returning home, to my daughter, the lady that will soon outgrow me in maturity.

It was a 9.20 PM flight. I was supposed to land at 11.50. Indigo did. The pilot refused to open the door till midnight, actually did a countdown, and wished everyone a happy new year in an unusually cheerful voice.

Unfortunately, the acknowledgement was feeble.

But I digress. This is not about enthusiastic pilots set out to please their customers.

This is about food.

Let me go back in time, till, say, about 7.30 PM. I had reached the airport a bit early, for I wanted to avoid the 31st-night traffic (I had even taken a train). I handed over my check-in luggage and strolled towards security check.

Before the Kolkata flight there was another Indigo flight, Indore. I have immense respect for Indore, for she is a city as proud of her food as Kolkata, and rightly so. Indore is also the home of CK Nayudu, but that is irrelevant as far as this post is concerned.

Restaurant tip: If you go to Indore, do not return without making at least two trips to Madni Darbar. It is also easy on the pocket.

Just behind me in queue was a gentleman headed for Indore. Like me, he had a backpack as carry-on luggage. Like me, he stuffed his cellphone and watch in the backpack. Like me, he put his laptop on a tray and slid it in.

Unlike me, he was stopped; his backpack, intercepted. They had apparently found something suspicious in the bag. Security is usually tight during national holidays and festive seasons…

As I recovered my tray and started on the extremely convoluted process of stuffing my laptop in my backpack and taking the cellphone and watch out of it, I overheard a conversation.

They had excavated a small pouch out of his backpack.

Is mein khaane ki cheez hai?

I could not help but steal a glance. The look on the face was grim, and oddly familiar. There was fire in his eyes, the scalding fire of protest, of scorn, of rage...

Even if I am struck by a blunt instrument and lose my memory for good, I will never forget the look; or the retort:

Main Mumbai se Indore jaa raha hoon: khaane ki cheez leke jaaoonga?

I did not hang around, but I could well have hugged him. The pride in his voice was unmistakable. I could almost hear him asking aapka dimaag to theek hai, na? Of course, I sincerely hope he did not ask that and land in trouble…

It could well have been me.

***

DISDAIN

This is not my story. This is the story of Tanmay Mukherjee, immortalised in cyberspace by his penname Bongpen. For some reason he did not want to narrate it himself, hence...

Unless you have been living under a massive rock, you are aware that Tanmay is a biryani connoisseur. News got around, and Tanmay got invited to a wedding.

Note: Tanmay has told me multiple times whose wedding it was, but I am terrible with these things. It is not, however, relevant.

The menu itself was worth a narration: luchi, chicken something, mutton biryani, and roshogolla. Luchis were served piping hot, and in stacks of six; roshogollas were served in fours; and they used bowls, not ladles, to serve both chicken and biryani.

In other words, everything about the meal was no-nonsense.

Tanmay was through with the first round of luchis, but there was some surplus chicken. He waited for biryani to be served.

This, after all, was the moment.

Kolkata biryani. The king of foods. The rice has to be fine, but not Five-Star-Hotel fine, for rice is not the protagonist of biryani. Rice can be a Dumbledore or a Gandalf or a Yoda, but the final task is not its to carry out.

The mutton, the protagonist, is soft, succulent, and cooked to perfection. As connoisseurs will know, if you overcook the mutton, all you will be left with are small shreds; worse, the thin sheet of fat will melt into the biryani. If you undercook it, on the other hand, you will need a toothpick.

The perfect balance of spices is crucial: neither can you afford to go overboard with anything, nor can you underplay any of the ingredients.

And then, there is the potato, ready to melt at the slightest pressure of your thumb.

But I digress, as always. This is the story of Tanmay.

The moment arrived. The man with the bucket and the bowl had arrived. And then, just as he was about to serve, the man stared at the plate, the contempt in his eyes unmistakable.

Aapnar paate to chicken achhe, biryani kibhabe debo?

How can I serve biryani on your plate, when there is chicken?

As is norm, biryani and chicken are not supposed to touch each other. That is blasphemous.

***

Tanmay had almost done the grave error of contaminating his biryani with chicken.

Fortunately, there was a messiah to show him the way, to stop him from committing the cardinal sin.

***

Picture courtesy: Imgur.

Friday, January 1, 2016

On your 12th

To the girl who turns twelve today:

I remember not being able to react exactly twelve years ago, this day. I remember going through the motions, obeying everyone blindly, till it was time to go home.

It had taken a few months to sink in. Maybe that was when I had started off late, for with you it has always been a race against time: what if I run out of time before I get to see you grow up?

I was not there when you stood up, on your feet, the first time. I was at work. There was no Kodak moment for me.

But I did not miss your first day to pre-school, for that was something I could control.

I did come home late. Of course I came home late. Of course I missed putting you to sleep and pulling the blanket, softly, Nirupa Roy-style.

But on occasions when I could get away early, I did that. I sang lullabies with the finesse of a bathroom singer, but I did that.

My thoughts are cluttered tonight.

Memories keep coming back.

Memories of spending nights, awake, alone, sitting next to you as you slept.

Memories of neither of us being able to stop laughing over ‘a parliament of owls’.

Memories of your astonishment at the first word you knew but I did not: gibbous.

Memories of impressing you with mental arithmetic skills: why was (is, as well) impressing you so important?

Memories of smelling your hair as we watched Doraemon together.

This is something a lot of fathers have told me: what is it about daughters’ hair irrespective of their ages?

Memories of both of us being utterly confused when we found out that Omelette (from Matilda) was used in Ice Age (or was it Ice Age 2?).

Memories of trying to teach you the nuances of cricket, my disappointment at your not being interested at all, and then being shocked by your announcement that Glenn Maxwell was always your favourite cricketer, since childhood, and you were always a big fan.

But this post is not about Glenn Maxwell. Trust me, it is not.

This is about us. I hate quoting myself, but I am probably not the father you want. I will not even be the most-loved man in your life, for in a few years’ time there will be a man you will love more than you have ever loved me.

But you will remain, forever, the most-loved girl in my life.

You will also remain the most tolerant girl in my life, for you have lived my idiosyncrasies, my acts of selfishness, my complete randomness, my terrible puns, my reluctance to communicate to strangers and click selfies, and more.

Note: The Mother has tolerated me as well, but she always knew what she was getting into, and I never knew her as a girl. She also had a reasonably awesome father, which is not something you can boast of.

But let us not digress. I tend to deviate a lot these days. Age, you see. I am getting old, too old to even text or check my WhatsApp. I try to stick to calls and emails these days.

See, I am going off track; yet again.

Let me simply sign off with this, today, on your twelfth. By the time I land in my, your, our city, it will already be your birthday.

We will meet again, provided no one, nothing comes in between.

And when I do, I know I will go weak in my knees, and that familiar lump will form in my throat. I will stand, flashing the stupidest of smiles, unable to conjure a conversation.

We do not meet regularly. But when we do, it is the same every time.

I cannot see that changing, even when both of us are past my current age.

A happy twelfth, little one.

I know this post made no sense. But then, neither do I. I never have.

PS: That ‘best friend’ offer is still on. Just pick up the phone.

Followers